Peter C. Newman: Man of Letters

Author, journalist, firebrand … Peter C. Newman has built a career keeping Canada’s elite on their toes.

“Look at this,” Peter C. Newman entreats, pulling out something from his wallet.

The professional court jester – a man once described as both Canada’s “chronicler and conscience” – smiles the smile of a baby having a dream, unfolds something and hands a postcard-sized image across our table at Soho House in Toronto. Flummoxed and yet charmed by the blast-from-the-past stage craft, I take a moment to register the magical paper – people, these days, usually just pull up pics on their phones – and then zero in on a glossy of a comely vessel.

Newman’s latest sailboat, with quite majestic masts, is just the latest of his babies. A life-long seafarer – with the ever-present hat to match – his love is palpable, but it’s also bittersweet. He tells me he’s giving the boat up soon – and sailing, in general. “My balance isn’t the best anymore,” he says sotto voce.

Not as spry on his feet, it may be, but as nimble and shrewd as any 86-year-old ever was if the publication this fall of Newman’s latest book – his 26th! – is any indicator. With a brio that cannot be bridled, he talks about Hostages to Fortune: How the Loyalists Invented Canada, his no-doubt-boffo tome about the United Empire Loyalists.

But not only that – while he’s on about it, he rattles off three other books he’s plotting and writing. For a man who’s as close to a cultural icon that a journalist can get in this country – an astral round table that includes the likes of Barbara Frum, June Callwood, Pierre Berton – his curiousity remains incurable. “My operational code is to make facts dance” is how Newman capsulizes his MO. And boogie, he continues to do.

First things first: what does the “C” in your name stand for? That’s the most pressing thing I clear up during my rendezvous with the scribbler. “Charles,” he informs. “There was another journalist with the name Peter Newman” when he began dabbling in journalism – sometime after arriving in Canada with his family as Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia – and, so, the boldface middle initial was born.

That “other” Peter Newman, it’s safe to say, didn’t go on to sell more than two million books, writing biographies of industry titans galore, institutions like the Hudson’s Bay Company and prime ministers à la John Diefenbaker, Lester B. Pearson, Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Brian Mulroney.

Nor did he rise to be the editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star or a long-time occupation of the same post at Maclean’s magazine (Peter C. is the one who turned it into a weekly in the 1970s). He also wasn’t the one who hat-tricked an Order of Canada, all the while cobbling together a career that’s combined the vanities-prickling of Tom Wolfe, the New Journalism of a Gay Talese, the scene-setting panache of an Antonia Fraser and the sniff-sniff doggedness of Seymour Hersh.

“It’s part of Newman’s charm that he has never decided whether he wants to write economic analysis, business biography or old-fashioned gossip. He writes all three at once,” wrote literary critic Robert Fulford, as far back as 1975, riffing on the work of the Newman. “In his prose,” he went on, “there is a kind of boyish delight in discovering the outrageous excesses of his subjects.”

That “boyish” thing – which often comes up in appraisals of the man – is in full display the day of our meet. If the key to being interesting is to be interested, as the adage goes, and the secret to longevity is doing what you love, Newman has it nailed. I take the opportunity to ask about the many great characters that he’s watched up close. Trudeau, go.

“I knew him before anyone,” he announces, going on to recall an evening at his house where Pierre was “rolling around on my floor” with an amour, before his marriage to Margaret. (About his son, Justin, the current 24 Sussex Drive aspirant, Newman remains a firm agnostic, when asked.)

Regarding Diefenbaker, another long-ago leader of Canada, he remembers being admonished by him in public, the Conservative PM decrying him in a speech as “the slave of liberalism who writes pseudo-biographies for monetary gain.” (Knowing a good line when he hears one and being someone who can take it as well as he can dish it, Newman got a kick out of that one.)

Stringing quips is something, actually, that he has a PhD in. About, say, grade A socialite-writer Barbara Amiel – about whom, and husband Conrad Black, Newman hasn’t often been too generous – Newman once cracked, “She was the sort of woman who kept spilling out of her dresses, then blaming the dresses.”

Fittingly, he’s valiant to make himself the brunt of his bons mots, if you consider his one-liner about the collapse of his marriage (one of four) to Christina McCall (the writer who later went on to marry academic Stephen Clarkson whose own ex-wife was none other than Governor General-to-be Adrienne Clarkson). On McCall: “We divorced over religious differences. I thought I was God, and she didn’t.”

“Never marry a writer,” he counsels now, giving the benefit of his decades. Wife-wise, though, he finally did get it right with his current missus, Alvy, whom he’s been with now for 20 years, ever since their first date spent dining on lobster on a sailboat – but, of course! – in Vancouver’s English Bay. As Alvy is a psychologist, I couldn’t not ask for her “read” on her husband.

“I liken him to a caricature of the bashful loner one imagines a writer to be,” she emailed me. “He has the qualities one tends to find in those raised with old-country gentrified European values. It is a strange expression to say someone is comfortable in their own skin, but he is. He knows who he is, he likes who he is and he truly doesn’t care one single iota what others think of him.”

Who he is is someone who’s spent a lifetime staring down the powerful, as was the case years ago with a tome he wrote about one of Canada’s wealthiest families. “There had never been an honest book about the Bronfman Dynasty because nobody could get the facts about their bootlegging days,” is what he remembers about that project.

“At the time, I was editor of Maclean’s, and Seagrams, the Bronfman-owned liquor company, was our largest advertiser. So I couldn’t really publish anything unless I had incontrovertible proof.” And – eureka! – he got it, from a source close to the RCMP. With his finished manuscript “under lock and key,” he’d sent along one copy to the Book-of-the-Month Club because “we wanted them to take it, unaware at that point that … well … the Bronfmans owned the Book-of-the-Month Club.”

Naturally, they got a copy, and he – together with his publisher, Jack McClelland – were summoned by them to the 55th floor of Toronto’s TD Tower. “Now, most people think that the building has 54 floors –that’s what it advertises – but actually,” Newman scene-sets, “there’s a 55th, which at that time was the private hangout of the Bronfmans.” Long story short: threats were arrowed; words volleyed. In the end, though, none of it went anywhere, and the book was published to great success, breaking records in Canada.

Musing on that era and all the moguls he’s known and frenemied, he surprises me by declaring now, “The establishment is dead.”

It’s quite the statement coming from the fella who literally wrote the book on the subject – The Canadian Establishment, published in 1976, which changed the tenor of business writing in this country and spurred two sequels. Newman explains: “We have a meritocracy, which is more powerful,” ceding also to my opinion that celebrity today is also more potent – and porous when it comes to borders – than the poobahs he used to cover.

As for the state of journalism, he remains nonplussed. “It used to be the survival of the fittest. Now, it’s survival of the fastest.” Tweeting or live-blogging one’s story seems to him the equivalent of “publishing your notes for your story.”

For all his success and his awards – they run the better part of two pages in a CV he’d sent me earlier – there is a nagging feeling among some that Newman hasn’t been fully accepted in this country. One of his best friends, the pundit and rabblerouser Raymond Heard, accuses the more delicate members of the Canadian cultureati of denying his due by snubbing him the Governor-General’s Literary Award for nonfiction, as they always have, for his lengthy 2004 autobiography, Here Be Dragons.

In Heard’s view, what distinguishes Newman is his “intense emotional involvement” in his stories, pointing out a column he penned longed ago about Richard Nixon during an encounter.

“I kept watching Nixon, searching for some glimmer of human response under the careful television mask he wore,” Newman reported then. “Then, our glances briefly locked and, just for an instant, I caught the real Nixon. In that small stillness of insight, I recognized a man so terrified – his breath and muscles seemed as taut as a pole-vaulter’s – that he could barely keep himself under control. Wild gooseberry eyes looked out with the plea of a man who had spent a lifetime being snubbed, begging for belief.”

What strikes me, reading this years later, is the empathy. Long characterized as a take-down artist or even a satirist – “the enemies of laughter, by the way, deserve to be treated with the same abhorrence as the enemies of truth,” he once said – Newman, it turns out, is actually a stealth humanist.

And, clearly, his work is far from done. A few years back, in fact, at age 80, Newman had a brain MRI, after which the court jester was informed that – a-ha! – he “had the brain of a very healthy 60-year-old.”



There’s no shortage of 80-year-olds ruling their respective universes


Her steely quips might often steal the show, but it’s her eyes – those dragged-down pools of meaning – that remain her secret weapon. Having won favour of late for the five seasons she’s ruled as the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey, she’s simply doing what she’s done ever since she nabbed an Academy Award, back in 1969, for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: being a boss.


Brains met beauty when the beloved memorist pushed aside both movie stars and supermodels, late last year, as the latest ad face of haute brand, Céline. Meanwhile, she continues to write prose that dances.


Both eternal hipster and apostle of peace, she has (at last count) 4.74 million Twitter followers. Still continuing to dabble in both music and art, she’s even lived long enough to see former frenemy Paul McCartney bury the hatchet with her once and for all. In a 2013 Rolling Stone interview, the Beatle called John’s widow “a badass.”


It’s better to be feared than loved: Machiavelli might very well have been talking about the man behind the News Corp. empire. Though he’s taken some hits professionally – and he is the rare octogenarian to get Bieber-sized coverage of his love life – he continues to control almost-unfathomable chunks of TV, sports, news, movies, books, newspapers and the Internet across five continents!


A “maestro of curves” and famous enough to be parodied on The Simpsons, he is unquestionably the world’s foremost architect. And from L.A. to Bilbao, his buildings stop traffic. Last year, the Canadian debuted a battleship of an art museum in Paris, commissioned by Louis Vuitton’s Bernard Arnault. Next up: Facebook’s 420,000-square foot campus in Silicon Valley.


“The theatre is not for sissies. It separates the men from the boys,” he wrote in his memoir. And so, he is still doing stamina-defying one-man shows at the Stratford Festival and beyond. Proving also that good things come to those who wait, the mellifluous-voiced leading man also finally won his first Oscar in 2012 for his performance in the film, Beginners.


He who built Barrick Gold into the world’s largest bullion miner continues to pick at geopolitics via the A-list Munk Debate that he sponsors twice a year in Toronto. He’s also enjoying the fruits these days of the vast superyacht marina that he hocus-pocused out of nothing in Montenegro.


She continues to go daily to the work that is her labour of love: Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, the world’s largest repository of footwear. It turns 20 years old this spring. Never content to just stand in her late husband’s shadow, the society matriarch once said, “In my own life, I forget that I’m a woman.”


Like a soufflé, he keeps on rising. The chef who is synonymous with nouvelle cuisine –
and who created the world’s most prestigious cooking contest, the Bocuse d’Or International – plays on. His restaurants continue to have a stranglehold on Michelin stars, and he’s got a new 2015 cookbook out, too – Simply Delicious.


His real surname is Benedetto – the “blessed one” in Italian. From singing for JFK at the White House to his current cheek-to-cheek with Lady Gaga to his 18 Grammy wins, the sheer breadth of his career is amazing. In The Zen of Bennett, made some years back, he declared that he loves what he does so much that “as far as I’m concerned, I’ve never worked a day in my life.” —SG